Health and hygiene

Life in Viking Age Jorvik (York)

Scratch, scratch !

Fleas and head lice were a constant irritation to Jorvik’s residents. The main reason for the ‘comb industry’ in Jorvik may not have been to stay looking good but to continually get rid of head lice ! We know, too, that most Jorvik residents had parasite worms in their intestines and that these could grow up to a third of a metre long, though they were probably not too harmful to health.

We can tell from the evidence of other Viking places that many Jorvik residents would sooner or later be likely to suffer from osteo-arthritis. Most people would also have problems with their teeth; not decay, which is common in people today, but the loss or wearing down of teeth because of coarse food which might also contain stone grit from the quern.

Toilets were outdoor cess pits – simply holes in the ground, screened by low, woven wickerwork panels. Perhaps an occasional shovelfull of earth was thrown over the toilet waste to keep the smell down and the flies away ! We believe from the evidence of other Vikings sites that people did wash and bathe regularly.

Household waste, such as bones, food scraps, shells and broken items were probably just thrown onto midden heaps beside the house. These middens would attract rats and flies and be a health hazard But they are valuable to us, for it is in these (long since buried and built over) that archaeologists find the bits and pieces, the clues, which help us piece together what life was like in the past.

Though we may think that Jorvik in the Viking Age might be a smelly, unhygienic place to live, it was probably no worse than other large medieval settlements in England and on the Continent. The people, also, were probably no worse off in health and life expectancy than others of the time.